Exhibitions of Neglected British Century Painters: Prunella Clough and Gerald Wilde

March Fine Art Fair, Olympia and Millinery Works Gallery, 2004

Many British artists of the 20th Century did not fit into any of the ‘categories’ which art-world shorthand uses.  Or if they did, it was briefly and often coincidentally.  Perhaps there is something wrong with the categories.  Either way, these (and all) artists must be taken picture by picture, whether or not they make it easy for us by being obviously one thing or another.

Prunella Clough (1919-2000) and Gerald Wilde (1905-1986) spanned a large chunk of the century.  Both were, to say the least, individualists.  Clough’s work was so varied, both in subject matter and medium, that it is extremely difficult to reach a reasoned conclusion on her abilities and on her status.  Wilde’s work was a little more coherent in style, but not easy to read or assess.  Both have recently had exposure in London, Clough at the March Fine Art Fair at Olympia and Wilde at the Millinery Works Gallery in N1.  The Clough show was quite large and well publicised.  It attracted quite a lot of (varied) critical attention, including a blasting from Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard, whereas Wilde slipped by largely unnoticed, although there was a review in that excellent spotter of North London artistic events, the ‘Ham & High’.

Clough came from a reasonably prosperous background, such that she could afford the affectation of being a ‘socialist'; rather in the way of Lady Antonia Fraser.  She therefore didn’t need to try too hard to sell her pictures or to paint them in a way which would appeal to any known audience.  This latter may well, of course, be a very good thing indeed, giving, as it may, a degree of independence from the commercial side of art production which may enable the pure artistic endeavour to shine through.  On the other hand, it may lead – and has often led – to a view of art which only alienates the, for want of a better description, art-buying public.  This isn’t the place or context in which to explore the long debate about whether artists should care if anyone out there is actually being communicated with, or bothering to spend their own money on sharing the artist’s vision.  Suffice it to say that, in Clough’s case, she probably didn’t care about the art-buying public and they didn’t care about her.  Although galleries occasionally nowadays try to charge a moderately large amount of money for her work – think low five figures – the auction market is more cynical and, with her long life and huge output, it would be easy to pick up a Clough of some sort at auction for less than £10,000.

The difficulty is that one could be picking up something quite interesting (particularly from the early 1950s) or something really excruciatingly dull (much of the later, virtually abstract work).  The early work is drably realist, in a style which often showed men at work, robotic, fractured by her vision of cubism, dully coloured, but undoubtedly thoughtfully and carefully produced.  These are well worth seeing.  They show her wrestling, as so many did after the War, with the issue of how to be a basically realist painter without attempting photographic realism; focusing on the good socialist subject of work (always, of course, from her comfortable West London houses and studios).  The challenge met various responses from her approximate contemporaries.  Bacon went for the psyche in one way; Freud in another.  Clough took neither route.  Her texture was smooth, her colours muted, her feelings unengaged.  There is no passion about her work.  When she moved on, it was towards a sheer hell of safe, careful, uninspiring abstraction.  Bland pictures became blander and, presumably, very largely unsaleable.  No doubt she thought that a good thing.

Wilde‘s life was very much more fraught.  There is nothing praiseworthy about that in itself.  He was clearly, also, a good deal madder and more dangerous to deal with than Clough.  His works and the briefest outline of his biography betray this.  The works on show in the Millinery Works Gallery were mostly gouaches, strong lines of bright colours, red, yellow and blue, faintly representational in some cases and of little artistic weight.  Where the weight came was in the oils.  There has been on show in Tate Britain for some time one of Wilde’s pictures from a series of pictures each tentatively known as ‘Fata Morgana’.  (Wilde’s titles were often applied by galleries).  There are a number of these pictures scattered around and one appeared in this exhibition, a bit smaller than the Tate’s, but equally striking.

In his oils, Wilde meshes the colours – many of them – densely and thickly.  But unlike, say, Auerbach, whose thickness of paint can be so overpowering to its putative subject matter, Wilde’s work communicates something.  The sky in this ‘Fata Morgana’ is swirling and powerful; fierce, turbulent colours, like a Munch or Nolde.  We haven’t had many artists in this country who could really be said to have been expressionist in the North European sense, but Wilde is perhaps one of them.

His work is very hard to come by.  It virtually never appears at auction.  I suspect he didn’t produce much, as his long life was interrupted by periods of, shall we say, difficulty, when not much oil painting can have been done.  Money was obviously in short supply for much of his life, as was critical acclaim.  Take any opportunity to seen an oil by this artist; they give you something to get stuck into.